As teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg rose to eminence, making headlines around the world and gracing the coveted front cover of TIME magazine as their 2019 Person of the Year. She captured the attention of young people as never before. Through her global youth movement ‘School Strike for Climate’ and her impassioned speeches imploring urgent change from the world’s most powerful leaders, she became the voice and icon of the generation most at risk from the fallout of global warming. Suddenly children around the world could see a young person like themselves mobilising millions of youths to rally for climate justice and bravely calling out adult politicians on their apathy and inaction.
In her famous World Economic Forum speeches, she reiterated the dire warning, ‘Our house is on fire.’ At the UN Climate Action Summit, she tearfully lamented, ‘People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction.’
There is no doubt about the vital importance of educating the next generation about climate change in order to empower them to tackle the legacy of climate issues left by ours. Yet how can we talk to kids about climate change without causing anxiety or even despondency? We turned to industry experts for their advice on this challenging subject.
1. Make sure they are ready
Unfortunately, there is no “best age” at which it is appropriate to talk to children about climate change. According to the Australian Psychological Society (APS), ‘The best way to find out if your children are ready to talk about climate change is to listen carefully to what they say and the questions they ask.’ This can give parents the opportunity to open up a broader conversation. If your child never raises the issue, the APS recommends initiating interaction by explaining why you do things in your everyday life to help the environment, or by asking kids directly what they know about climate change and how they feel about it.
‘Like all issues, questions and challenges kids have, being a parent is just about providing them a comfortable place to talk about things that they might be concerned about or have questions about,’ explains Dr Simon Albert, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Queensland. As a climate change expert, Dr Albert has undertaken high profile projects, published papers and books and directed films to communicate environmental messages to the broader community. As a father of two, he takes a more audience-led approach to communication. ‘I have let my kids take the lead on chatting about climate change rather than being too prescriptive.’
2. Understand their feelings
When learning about climate change, children may experience feelings of sadness, fear or anger. They may even feel anxious about the future of the planet or their personal safety. As such, it is important to find out if they are worried and what their concerns are. The APS suggests doing this by:
- providing opportunities for children to talk about their concerns;
- encouraging them to share their feelings rather than keeping them inside;
- helping them to put their feelings into words;
- validating their feelings by showing that you understand and relate; and
- helping them to feel calm by using techniques such as slow breathing and self-talk.
As parents, it is also important to look out for signs of anxiety in children, and to seek professional help when needed.
3. Be honest
‘There is no doubt climate change is the greatest challenge we face this century. We are on track for significant impacts to humans and ecosystems globally over our kids’ lifetimes,’ explains Dr Albert. ‘Being such a topical and sometimes alarming issue, it is critical to provide some clear answers to questions kids have,’ he adds.
The APS supports this approach, recommending parents to acknowledge that climate change is a big problem, but to help alleviate children’s anxiety by explaining that you are working with many others to try to fix it. ‘Children who talk often with their parents about climate change are more concerned about climate change but are also better at coping with it,’ they explain.
The key is making sure that the information you share is appropriate to each child’s age and level of emotional intelligence. With very young children, this may simply involve chatting about the environmentally friendly things you do and fostering a love of the natural world with them. For school-aged kids, this means responding to them with honest answers and talking about climate change in everyday situations. For older children and teenagers, you could research the science together, and explore the differing political approaches to environmental issues. For more ideas on what to do or say, the APS provides the resource A Guide for Parents about the Climate Crisis.
4. Talk about action
One major way of maintaining a hopeful outlook among children is to focus on the solutions to the problem. For example, you could explain what you personally or as a family do to help, share what others are doing and discuss new action that you could take.
What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of a difference you want to make.Dr Jane Goodall
Dr Albert explains, ‘Kids are inherently positive, so it is important to avoid a feeling of helplessness and ensure they feel positive about the future and realise there are some really simple steps that could limit the worst impacts of climate change.’ He emphasises the need to instil in kids the importance of thinking about others when acting. ‘In such a globalised and industrialised world, the positive and negative actions we take can have global impacts. I think it is important to share the realities of places and people in the world that are exposed to the frontline of climate change. Through my work in the Solomon Islands, I have helped my kids to understand that actions we take here in Australia can have ripple effects around the world. This sense of “think globally and act locally” is a powerful idea that kids can relate to.’
5. Give hope
One of the most important tools for empowering kids and motivating them to take action is hope. ‘Kids are wonderful to talk to about complex issues such as climate change because they often cut straight to the core issue and give a new perspective,’ says Dr Albert. ‘It is important to explain some of the complexity but also make it clear that there are solutions and they can be achieved in their lifetimes.’
The APS recommends parents to research and talk about the concrete, plausible solutions which are already available, to explain how other big problems around the world have been solved by people working together and demanding change, and to share success stories of great achievements.
Greta Thunberg’s message to MPs in the Houses of Parliament in the UK was clear: ‘We can avoid climate and ecological catastrophe. Humans are very adaptable: we can still fix this.’ As Ben Goldberger, executive editor of TIME magazine points out, ‘Despite the dire urgency of her message, there is optimism at the heart of [it].”
Indeed, Dr Albert shares that optimism. ‘It is clear that we cannot rely on the thinking of previous and current generations that have driven the unprecedented rates of carbon emissions to solve this crisis. I have no doubt that the solutions to our climate crisis will come from our kid’s generation, they have new ideas and ways of thinking that fills me with hope.’
I have learned you are never too small to make a difference.Greta Thunberg
|Further resources For more professional advice from the APS on talking with children about the environment, you can visit their website at psychology.org.au. If you are inspired to take more action within your own family, the APS have put together ‘101 Things You Can Do to Help Address Climate Change’. They also provide a great resource for adults on coping with climate change distress. NASA’s dedicated ClimateKids website is a wonderful resource focused on the science of climate change through a range of articles, videos, activities and games. National Geographic Kids also provides primary resources on climate change, such as this child-friendly article and this video.